Eating disorders and the ‘Lough Ness monster inside’

A centre in Cork plays a vital role in helping people whose attitude to food is problematic

Cormac Sheehan and Trish Shiels: “The earlier an eating disorder is caught, the faster people recover from it.”   Photograph:  Gerard McCarthy

Cormac Sheehan and Trish Shiels: “The earlier an eating disorder is caught, the faster people recover from it.” Photograph: Gerard McCarthy

 

Cora Grant knew she had a problem with her attitude towards foods even before she was in her teens. In the years afterwards, the issue dominated all, until matters finally came “crashing down” in her late 30s.

“It was like having a Lough Ness monster living underneath the scenes at all times and it would always emerge,” she recalled, before the launch of a report that found the average age for most eating disorders is now 14.5 years.

“Your mind is so under siege with it . . . Everything was about my thought processes and how I felt in myself in the world was just so horrific. Having that Lough Ness monster inside me felt normal.

“No matter what I did to orient myself towards good I was always dragged down and that all came crashing down when I was 37,” said Grant, who finally went for help to the Eating Disorder Centre in Cork.

The EDCC, based in Cork city, is the only centre of its kind in Ireland. Because of the lack of services elsewhere people travel from west Cork, Waterford, Tipperary and Kerry in search of help.

Early days

The EDCC opened in 2008 with two clients and one family, prompted by action from three couples who tired of travelling to Dublin with their children. Today, it is helping 70 people, aged between 12 and 60.

Eighty six per cent of them are female. Each day, 1,800 people are diagnosed with an eating disorder; while 190,000 will experience problems during their lives, according to Perspectives on the Cork Eating Disorder Centre Cork.

Nearly half of the people affected live on less than €12,000 a year, according to the authors, Dr Cormac Sheehan – of the department of general practice, University College Cork and the HSE – and Grace Kelly.

Research is needed to investigate whether eating disorders themselves lead to under-employment, unemployment, absenteeism from work, school or college, Dr Sheehan said.

Many people who develop an eating disorder will display changes in eating behaviours, such as refusing to eat meat, but he stressed that not everyone who did so would inevitably go on to develop an eating disorder.

‘With kindness’

People on low incomes can qualify for help, Trish Shiel, a psychotherapist and the EDCC’s clinical manager, explained, though under-18s should be brought to a GP immediately. “It’s really important that it’s caught early if at all possible.”

Family and friends should approach someone affected “gently and with kindness”, she told The Irish Times: “The earlier an eating disorder is caught, the faster people recover from it.”

“More people die from an eating disorder than any other mental health condition so it is urgent that we address the importance of early intervention and have programmes about that. The importance of early intervention is vital,” she said.

Together with the UCC school of dentistry, the centre last year developed leaflets that are now shared in dental surgeries highlighting early-warning signals. This year, it intends to work with first- and second-year secondary students.

Six therapists, an administrator, a dietician and three volunteers all work together to provide ongoing support to clients, spouses, families, parents, partners and others caring for someone with an eating disorder.